Editorial - On the palette of life, art provides the colour

15th August 2014 at 01:00

Next week, on GCSE results day, cinemas across England will screen Art Party, a film by artist Patrick Brill (known creatively as Bob and Roberta Smith). It documents the art world's protest against what they saw as the proposed eradication of art in schools, and is also a defence and celebration of creativity in general.

Brill's protest started in 2011 with his Letter to Michael Gove, an oversized painted-word response to the former education secretary's planned curriculum changes. Indeed, had Gove not been moved in the recent Cabinet reshuffle, Brill had been planning to run against him at the next election in his Surrey Heath constituency to highlight the importance of creativity and design in schools. The artist had even bought a camper van for the purpose.

Protest has long featured in art, from Picasso's Guernica to street graffiti, and art has long featured in dissent and movements for social change. Teenagers everywhere have expressed their angst and anger through the medium. I can remember wanting to submit a long political explanation in support of my final A-level piece, before being gently and wisely counselled by my teacher to let it speak for itself.

Another artist happy to lend his voice to the cause and who does not fear being seen as political is Grayson Perry. Brill's friend and fellow campaigner is passionate about art and arts education. Although art and design's place in the curriculum is secure, it still does not feature in the English Baccalaureate performance measure, leading to a 14 per cent decline in the number of pupils choosing the subject for GCSE. Perry is particularly concerned about the disproportionate effect this has on poorer children, depriving them of the culture that our elite take for granted. "The idea that art will somehow look after itself - that society will breed untaught geniuses - is rubbish," he says. "We'll end up with a cultural sector even more skewed towards the privately educated."

Art is, as Perry insists, for the masses, and it is undeniably regrettable that it should be a casualty in the battle for more rigour in schools. Education is slowly dividing into two rival camps: the traditionalists who want a fact-driven, rigorous curriculum and the progressives who advocate a child-centred, creative one. It almost amounts to a rehash of the tired old two cultures divide.

No one would deny that subjects such as maths, English and science are vital, but if they are the heart of a good education then art is what makes it beat faster. It's not a question of either-or. There's no need to sacrifice rounded in the quest for grounded; we can and should have both. Of course, it would be daft to devote as much time to dance as to maths, as recently advocated by Sir Ken Robinson, but it's equally daft to allow it to be sidelined from the core function of schools.

We need to find a balance: Symbolism and symbiosis, cube roots and Cubism. Yes, children need to be taught facts, they need to know about the world. But to know is not always to understand. For Perry, art is the space where children can make sense of the world around them, especially the all-pervading issue of visual culture in the 21st century. The answer is not black and white. One could say it's shades of Grayson.



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